Colombo: A batch of Sri Lankan fishermen, who had been subjected to legal proceedings in India for allegedly straying into its water while fishing in the International Maritime Border, was handed over to the island authorities by India on Wednesday.

India had earlier released 94 Sri Lankan fishermen and 21 boats.

According to a senior Fisheries Ministry official, Narendra Rajapaksa, 16 fishermen on three trawlers were handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy, as their jail terms ended on January 31, 2011.

Fishermen of both nations straying into each other's waters have been a major issue between the two South Asian neighbours.

India had in January accused the Sri Lankan Navy of firing at Indian fishermen and killing two of them in two separate incidents.

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissed suggestions that Sri Lanka and India are currently involved in a spat over the fishermen issue.

In an interaction with the media yesterday, Rajapaksa described the issue as a humanitarian problem.

"The poor fishermen chase after their catch, they have no idea of maritime boundaries," Rajapaksa said and expressed that hope that the issue can be amicably resolved.

"This is not a problem which came up recently. Our fishermen are now able to do deep sea fishing which they couldn't do during the war time (with LTTE). So it is now being seen as it has become a new problem," the President said, while dismissing the reports that Sri Lankan Navy personnel were firing at Indian fishermen.

He said that meetings between fishermen associations of the two countries would be facilitated soon.

Krishna cites Lankan sensitivities

Meanwhile, noting that Indian fishermen are arrested and harassed when they stray into Sri Lankan waters, Indian government on Wednesday asked them to be "conscious of the sensitivities" on the Sri Lankan side and their fishermen.

Against the backdrop of two fishermen being killed and 136 others being arrested by Sri Lanka in separate incidents recently, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna said the two countries had agreed to hold the Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting in March and hoped that there would be forward
movement.

He said keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of this issue, the two governments had on October 26, 2008 issued a Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements under which both agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bonafide fishermen from either country crossing the IBML.